From Deschutes to Ecliptic: Talking hops with brewmaster John Harris

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Three decades in the microbrewery business is no small feat—John Harris could attest to that. The Portland, Ore., native has been brewing in the Pacific Northwest since the mid ’80s, jumping between several of the state’s flagship breweries and pioneering some of the most beloved craft beers on the West Coast ever since he began his professional career at a local brewpub while in his early 20s. He’s concocted a venerable list of classics, from Deschutes’ Mirror Pond Pale and Black Butte Porter to McMenamins’ Hammerhead and Full Sail’s Hop Pursuit, while continually batting around the idea of a brewery of his home even when insipid commercial lagers were still at large.

Although Harris has undoubtedly made a name for himself in the Northwest—and a respected one, at that— he’s only just beginning. Bespectacled, bearded and donned with a fading, red ponytail, he speaks modestly, a smile brimming from ear to ear whenever he breaks the mildly pensive look on his face. Then again, he has reason to smile. After heading Full Sail’s Brewmaster Reserve line of beers for nearly 20 years, he finally has a colossal brewhouse to call his own (the aptly dubbed Ecliptic Brewery).

Evident from more than the brewery name alone—after all, “ecliptic” refers the sun’s apparent path throughout the year—the concrete-lined interior situated amid a former auto shop in northeast Portland takes after Harris’ keen interest in astrology. Celestial events puncturing such as the winter and summer solstices help dictate the rotating menu every 6 weeks, encouraging new additions to the constantly-rotating menu while providing beer names like Procyon Pale, Spica Hefepils, and Arcturus IPA. The Manual recently sat down with brewmaster to talk about his award-winning career, his new space, and what beer means to him.

M: How did you begin your career as a professional brewer in Oregon?

JH: I answered an advertisement in Willamette Week in the April of ‘86. McMenamins’ Hillsdale brewpub—[what would become one of nearly 65 establishments in the brewery and entertainment chain’s Northwest lineup]—needed a brewer. I went in, they interviewed and then hired me.

M: How did you find yourself moving between the three big-name breweries during the course of the last 30 years?

JH: I worked for McMenamins for about two years, from ‘86 to ‘88. During that time we ramped up business and hired a bunch of brewers, only to eventually lay many of them off (including me). At that point I had already started thinking I want to work for a more technically-savvy brewery, and no disrespect to McMenamins, but it just wasn’t there. It was a shoe-string operation at the time, with small kettles and open, unrefrigerated fermentors. There was no real control over fermentation temperature. As I learned more about how to make beer and control the process, I really wanted to get into a brewery equipped with more current technology. I was working with a guy at the time to possibly open a brewpub in Bend, Ore., but I was also constantly looking at a wanted ad for a brewer at Deschutes. I kept telling myself, “that’s your job.” I finally called Deschutes and told them I was their brewer. I was hired within two weeks as the brewery’s first employee.

Unfortunately, Bend just didn’t work for my wife and I. It was moving from lumber to tourism at the time, and tough to make friends given how clique the town was. I was friends with the owner of Full Sail, who knew of my wife’s displeasure, and they eventually offered me a position running their Portland operation. We were just starting to talk about opening a new a production brewery [at Deschutes] and I didn’t want to design it and then leave without commissioning it. It was a hard decision—the brewery was growing and the beer recipes were all my own—but it was the right choice.

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M: Did you have any previous homebrewing experience prior to starting your professional career?

JH: I had homebrewed a little bit in the mid ‘80s. Charlie Papazian had just written what became the most entry-level homebrew book, The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, and that pretty much revolutionized home brewing in a way. People were obviously brewing prior to that, but his book really brought an understanding to the process and made it accessible. A Portland writer had written a book before that about lagers, but it was highly technical and required so much knowledge before you could figure out what the hell he was talking about. Papazian’s tagline was, “ relax, don’t worry, have a homebrew.”

I read a bunch of books and was enjoying the microbrew revolution and all the new beers on the market at the time. I remember my first homebrew was terrible. My friend and I bought a homebrew kit at a local winery, cooked it up, and basically had no clue what we we’re doing. I think it was probably a light lager or pale, but I immediately knew we overcarbonated it when the top came off.

M: What does a glass of beer mean to you? Why the desire to brew beer to begin with?

JH: I fell in love with the process when I started brewing at McMenamins—and I loved watching people enjoy something I made. It’s great being able to say to myself, “I created that great experience.” Like a chef who might create that wonderful dish for his or her customers to devour nightly, I fell in love with making a consumable product people actually like to drink. Back then, there was theoretically less than 20 people really making beer in Portland. It was also just a cool job.

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M: What do you look for when crafting your own beers, or when drinking others’?

JH: I look at what’s out there and what’s popular to get an idea of what flavors people are into. In America, we all started out modeling beers after English ales such as porters and stouts, but we we’re essentially making them with American ingredients. Ingredients like the different hop varieties didn’t have the ability to create the flavors of their English counterparts, and so we created all these new styles as a result.

I believe beer should have balance. If I’m making an incredibly hoppy, quadruple IPA it should still have a malt presence, a sweet presence, a body and mouth feeling. It should all still be present, even if you’re going to get your head smacked by a four-by-four by the bitterness at the end. I feel beer needs to be on the edge, but balanced. I craft styles traditionally, but also artfully interpret them as my own. For instance, we recently had a standard porter, but it also had an American hop character to it—which you wouldn’t normally be looking for in a classic porter. People never expected it.

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M: Why did you decide to quit Full Sail and open your own brewery and restaurant?

JH: Every cook wants their own restaurant, or at least they think they do. I always felt like Portland lacked a brewery that took food as serious as it does beer and I had toyed with the idea of opening a brewery for some time. Everyone always expects pub grub from a brewery, but I wanted to create a place where people would be just as excited to see what’s on the food menu as the beer menu. We have one of the hottest food scenes in the country, if not the hottest beer scene in the country, and I wanted to pair the two together.

M: How do you think Portland’s microbrew scene changed over the last 30 years?

JH: Before McMenamins started brewing its own beer, it opened several multi-tap taverns where they were more than willing to put out the local beer being made by young brewers attempting to change the world. Oregon has always had a “buy Oregon” mentality, and it’s passionate about the goods it produces. In the late ‘80s, people often used to ask the bar owner what they could get that that tastes like Budweiser. Now that same pub owner often hears requests for beers that are whacky, different, and filled with weird ingredients. We’ve gone from drinking beers normal as possible, to drinking a product as far away from macro beers as possible. People are looking for more esoteric brewing styles. You’re also probably confused if you don’t see 12 beers on tap at a bar.

M: What are some of your favorite breweries and beers?

JH: I really respect Sierra Nevada as a brewery. Its beers have only gotten better as the brewery has expanded and their seasonal Celebration Ale remains one of my top five beers. I’m an hophead, so I’m always trying the IPA or pale ale when I go to a brewery for the first time, but I’m also a fan of pilsners. The late EKU Pils, though you can’t get it anymore, was really a great beer.

M: Where do you think Ecliptic, and craft brewing in general, is headed in the years to come?

JH: There’s no better time to be in this industry than now because there is so much acceptance for what we’re doing as brewers. Many years ago, New Belgium founder Kim Jordan declared that [craft beers] would one day represent 20 percent of the overall market share. It was such a bold comment when she said it, but at this point, I looks like it might actually happen. My goal is to provide standard beers people will expect such as pales, IPAs, stouts, porters, and lagers, yet with my own twist. People want to come in and feel as safe as they are at home, but they also want to be able try a sour.

Check out Ecliptic’s rotating food and beer menus online, or if in the area, stop by the new Portland brewery.